MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WBOY) — There’s no doubt that climate change is a complex issue, and it can be hard to grasp. Unfortunately, one topic that is being discussed within the scientific community is a lack of access to information surrounding climate change in West Virginia. There are many studies behind a paywall, but the conversation just isn’t there.
“The vast majority of West Virginians have a lot to lose by not addressing climate change. A very small number of West Virginians, businesses, and industries have a lot to lose by accepting climate change,” explained Nicolas Zegre, a Hydrology Professor at West Virginia University. “So, without a doubt, there is misinformation about climate change. There’s a lot of money going into undermining the science and credibility of scientists on climate change. That’s factual. That is indeed happening.
“But I don’t think that’s the only problem we have in West Virginia in terms of taking action and having public discourse,” Zegre continued, “It’s a really big and complicated issue that does not have an easy solution to it. It’s kind of like COVID. We’re all emotionally exhausted by the weights that this disruption has. Now take the weight of that disruption and impose it on our economically challenged families in West Virginia. Who the hell cares about climate change 10, 50 years down the line when I’m trying to put food on the table and trying to figure out how to get to work when the schools are closed? It’s very similar.”
It’s not just everyday citizens who avoid talking about climate change. The discussion is also absent at the capitol in Charleston.
“There are bills that would help with climate change. They’re no usually debated in terms of climate change because unlike some states where there’s a large constituency of people and policymakers that are committed to addressing climate change, we’re not quite there yet in West Virginia,” explained Delegate Evan Hansen, “But, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t good bills that could both grow the economy and address climate change.”
Downstream Strategies is a company based in Morgantown that provides environmental and economic consulting. Evan Hansen, the company president, said he decided to run for House of Delegates after the 2015 water crisis in the Charleston area when legislators invited him to help them with a bill that increased protections for drinking water. Since then, he has introduced several climate change-related bills.
“Climate change is not discussed much in West Virginia, in my opinion, because the economy is tied so close to fossil fuels for such a long time and they have really controlled the political system,” said Hansen, “but what we’ve found, or what we’ve seen with the coal industry so far is that they’re just digging in their heels and not acknowledging the science and fighting against any policy that would diversify the energy economy. Even policies that are clearly good for the state and for local communities because it would create new types of jobs. Pure self-interest over public interest.”
A topic discussed in the last episode of this series was how climate change indirectly costs West Virginia billions of dollars in flooding, pollution treatment, increased food cost, and other factors. But, as demand for environmentally friendly options grows in other countries, states, and companies, many fear that West Virginia will naturally fall behind. In the latest Gallup poll, only 22 percent of respondents said that the United States should emphasize coal as a country. It’s the lowest percentage of the polled energy industries, and it went down almost 10 percentage points in six years. In fact, all the non-renewable resources, including oil and gas, saw a sharp decline, while renewables like solar and wind increased or stayed about the same.
“The cost of renewable energy production has come down dramatically in the past five to 10 years. It’s now outpacing. It’s now cheaper to produce electricity from renewables than it is from fossil fuels, so what we’re seeing, like it or not, is that market forces are driving a transition in energy, and again, we want to make sure West Virginia is keeping pace and staying ahead of that curve,” said Angie Rosser, Executive Director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.
“A lot of companies, more and more, have renewable electricity targets where they’re committed to getting a certain percentage of their power from renewables, like solar,” explained Hansen, “more and more, companies have that commitment because as a corporation, they are committed to addressing climate change, and also because their customers demand it.”
“We had the Secretary of Commerce testify under oath before the energy committee that one of the first questions often asked by companies that are considering siting with West Virginia is whether they have access to enough solar electricity to power their operations, and he’s had to say no. You don’t have access to enough solar in West Virginia,” said Hansen, “so those companies just say ‘No. We can’t come to West Virginia because if we plug into the grid, we get mostly coal-based electricity and very little renewable, and that’s just not acceptable in this day and age.’”
Some people were concerned that allowing solar into the grid would detract from coal and cause a decline, but the bill was passed with both Republican and Democrat support with a limit to what percentage of the electricity is allowed to be solar. Now, a 90 Megawatt solar farm is set to be built in Raleigh County.
“That would not have happened if we had not changed the rules to be more fair toward solar development, and that project is supported by labor unions and by the local chamber of commerce. It just to approval from the Raleigh County Commission, and the reason it’s getting such broad support is that it’s bringing jobs and new revenues into the communities,” said Hansen.
But although wind and solar are known for their small carbon footprint, wind and solar are not perfect solutions. For one, both can have a more expensive upfront cost. They also depend heavily on the weather, so they are criticized for not being as dependable as fossil fuels, and it would be more difficult to prevent power surges or outages. Critics of wind power are concerned that the wind turbines kill a substantial amount of large, and sometimes endangered, birds, which could throw off the local ecosystem.
Solar is criticized for taking up too much surface space, requiring these large solar farms that displace wildlife, including trees. One way to mitigate this is it put solar panels on roofs. In fact, another bill that was on the table the last session had to do with power purchase agreements, where a company would install a solar panel on top of a roof at no cost to the family or business. In fact, they would get a lower electricity bill as a result. However, this bill didn’t pass.
And then, there is a discussion around how solar panels and wind turbines are made, shipped, and recycled.
But at the end of the day, what does this great energy battle mean for West Virginia? If the market shifts away from coal or legislation require limiting carbon dioxide emissions, people will likely suffer.
“Who does pay the price? If we need to reduce emissions, that’s going to cost money. If we’re going to continue with coal-fired power plants and require them to do more control and put more treatment on their smokestacks, that’s going to cost money. And does that cost then get passed on to the consumers? And how much? And how again, are we making sure we don’t overburden people who are already struggling to keep their heat on?” said Rosser.
A new buzzword in the climate change discussion is “just transition,” which attempts to take into account people who will be disproportionately impacted by a transition away from fossil fuels, for example, looking for alternative job solutions for coal miners or promising health care or scholarship to help with a transition.
“So ‘just transition’ is awareness and the mandate to take action to consider the spectrum of understanding the winners and losers of any decision, and there are people that are against that, that [say] we could never decarbonize our economy, coal is life. But at least in the just transition narrative, there’s space for everyone’s voice in how that transition occurs,” explained Zegre, “Coal is a great example where there’s very few people who control everything around coal mining in West Virginians in the country, they are very powerful and wealthy people who ultimately dictate the winners and losers in West Virginia. That’s not a democratic process. So, through this just transition framework, we have the opportunity to understand how everybody has a voice and how we can consider the needs of people who have different levels of disruption associated with that.”
On a national level, West Virginia’s voice is one of the most important ones in a just transition discussion, but experts say because our state has turned a blind eye, and little research is being done into what West Virginia needs, they are often overlooked on federal climate change legislation.
“I introduced a just transition bill last session that actually passed in the House of Delegates unanimously. It passed 100 to nothing, and it did not pass the state senate, but we’ll be back next session,” said Hansen, “And what that does is it would create a very small unit of government called the Just Transition Office and then it would bring together an advisory committee to write a just transition plan for the communities that are the hardest hit and the goal is to find ways to attract as many federal resources and as many private foundation resources into the communities that need it most to diversify their local economies and create jobs. And if we as a state, know what we want in terms of a just transition, then we can work with the federal government who is dealing with this at a national level.”
Rosser said that she is hopeful that West Virginia will have more of a say nationally, with Senator Manchin as a ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and National Resources.
“So, any kind of climate change legislation, Senator Manchin is going to have key leadership and an influential position in terms of getting policy at a federal level, so that’s kind of exciting and also an opportunity to make sure that West Virginians interests are prioritized–or thought of–as the nation considers climate change legislation, which we think will happen. It’s already beginning to happen and will happen in the next congress,” said Rosser.
While climate change has taken on this political life of its own, other, non-political solutions that communities and individuals can do to help that have nothing to do with coal, actually, the largest greenhouse gas source in the United States is transportation, not electricity.
“You don’t see as many electric vehicles as you do in other states, but we’re going to see a lot more electric vehicles in West Virginia in the coming years,” predicted Hansen, “But, we need to have a place to charge them, otherwise you can’t use them on a long distance. So, there needs to be a commitment made–an investment made–to install public chargers all across West Virginia, and I think we’re going to see that over the next few years also. Chargers can just use the same electricity that is on the grid right now, or they can be tied to renewables, in which case you would be charging vehicles with zero emission energy, and that’s the long term goal–to power vehicles with no emissions.”
Perhaps one way we could help the planet can start with the soil.
“We have wonderfully valuable forested lands in West Virginia that can act as carbon sinks. They can suck that carbon out of the air, so we have a lot of opportunity in terms of how we manage those forested lands,” Rosser pointed out, “We have an opportunity to reclaim degraded lands from coal mining. Got a lot of coal mining lands that need to be claimed, and we can reclaim those in a way that helps mitigate climate change.”
“There’s no reason why West Virginia could not be the farm to table food basket for the entire Mid-Atlantic area. We should be disaggregating our food systems, training out of work citizens to grow food on a local scale. We should feed West Virginians first, and then we can distribute that food to a regional economy by leveraging warmer and wetter conditions,” suggested Zegre.
Every day citizens don’t have to wait for things to change. They can help with little things like starting conversations to educate others, remembering to turn off the lights to conserving electricity, and recycling to reduce pollution. An easy way to start with recycling is to commit to one medium—recycle all the cardboard boxes in the house or all the paper. Then add more things to recycle later, once you get the hang of it. Making sure your house is properly insulated would cut down on heating costs as well as your carbon footprint.
“If we talk about climate change, and if we think about what we can do to protect West Virginians and what we can do to create opportunities by accepting climate change, I think we have a real opportunity here in West Virginia,” said Zegre. “It’s my hope that we can do that because my children are native West Virginians, and my family and I chose to move here because this place is amazing, and we all know it. So, let’s do what we can.”
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